Over the course of 24 hours, two controversial television ads were released as part of the 2012 presidential election. The first came from the Priorities USA Action super PAC and showed a steel worker who got laid off by Bain Capital; the second was released by Mitt Romney's campaign, claiming President Obama is "dropping work requirements" from existing welfare law.
Both have struggled under scrutiny. The first is based on an entirely true story involving real people, but relies on a "tenuous chain of causality" in part of the ad. The second is based entirely on an obvious, blatant, shameless lie that has no basis in reality whatsoever.
I was curious to see how the political establishment would respond to this, but I was especially interested in the reaction from Time's Mark Halperin because of his role as an informal barometer of the establishment's attitudes. Consider this item from this afternoon.
The right is up in arms over Harry Reid's accusation about Romney's taxes and about the new Obama Super PAC ad suggesting Mitt Romney is responsible for a woman's death.
The left is up in arms over the Republican TV ad on the President and welfare reform.
Based on the reactions in press releases, on Twitter, and on the web, I believe the following equation is accurate, despite media censure of both sides: Republican back-down + Democratic back-down = 0
My concern with the analysis is the drawing of equivalencies' where none exist. Harry Reid passed along an unsubstantiated rumor, which I've repeatedly said is unfair. A super PAC played fast and loose with a timeline, which is a misleading element in an otherwise sound commercial.
But of the three messages in question, only one is a blatant, demonstrable lie -- and it's the one followed by an "I approve this message" tagline from a man who intends to be president of the United States in six months.
For that matter, Mitt Romney has begun to shape his entire presidential campaign around the lie -- a racially-charged lie dealing with a substantive policy position Romney used to support until the president agreed with him -- while Obama hasn't mentioned or referenced the dubious claim in the Priorities USA Action ad at all.
My fear is, analyses like Halperin's leave people with the impression that deception is just part of the game -- "both sides" are doing it; neither side is apologetic; we should be equally disappointed with everyone.
But that's an incomplete look at what's happening in this campaign. There are qualitative differences between a PAC fudging a timeline in an otherwise accurate ad and a presidential hopeful making up policy claims out of whole cloth that are the exact opposite of reality because he wants working class whites in the Midwest to think the African-American president wants to "just send you your welfare check" (the exact wording from Romney's new ad).
The differences matter, and the equivalencies leave the public with a distorted picture.